Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Lost Soul 100km - "The toughest (and nicest) race on the prairies"

Lost Soul 100km Trail Race - what can I say? It was an awesome experience and despite the pain and agony, despite "you're having a f***ing laugh!" entering my head every time I saw the trail heading up one of the many steep hills from about 20km onwards, despite the sunburn, quad burn, bruised hips, mosquito bites, ankle pain and a couple of blisters, I already want to go back next year to race it properly and see if I can better my time.

I'd heard so many great things about the Lost Soul Ultra, and it certainly didn't disappoint. The organisation went like clock work, the volunteers were fantastic, and the runners were spectacular. Add to that the warm conditions and the most torturous yet wonderful course I have ever done over 100km, it certainly lived up to its reputation as the "toughest ultra on the prairies".

Having done Edmonton Marathon just 12 days ago, I had no idea how I would fair at Lost Soul. I wanted to do my best but with not knowing the course, I didn't really know how to pace myself. Unlike the Fast Trax 100km trail race back in June which was 10 x 10km loops, Lost Soul was 2 laps so I'd already done over half way before I had chance to become familiar with the course ready for lap 2. The ladies' course record was 14 hours set by Rhonda Loo last year, and having finished about 5 minutes ahead of her at the Calgary Marathon earlier this year, I figured that I would probably finish the100k in a similar time, depending on the severity of the course and the conditions. I had no expectations of winning and no particular goal except to try and better the 14 hours set by Rhonda - if that brought a win, great, if not, then at least it showed a better quality field in the race this year.

Pre-race instructions warned about the heat of the day, the risk of encountering snakes, the need for gaiters due to all the prickles from cacti and goodness knows what else, and runners were instructed to carry at least 1.5 litres of water due to the heat. It was also likely that many would finish the race in the dark, so a headtorch was also a requirement. The great thing was that with 3 aid stations that were visited twice each per lap, there was no need to carry huge backpacks.

Race day dawned, and I awoke feeling really excited but also nervous as I really didn't know what to expect. I wasn't concerned about the distance - it was more the heat, the hills and how long I would actually take.

With a 100 miler and the 100km starting at the same time on the Friday, there were around 200 people lining up on the start line, and after a rendition of the Canadian National Anthem, my journey began once again into the unknown.

At the start of the Lost Soul Ultra 100km Trail Race
The start was pretty fast, especially given that it was meant to be a tough course with the minimum distance that people would be running being 100km. I tried not to get sucked into the faster pace, deliberately holding back in anticipation of what was to come.

The first loop out and back to HQ wasn't too bad - pretty flat with a mix of wider tracks  and pavement, before a hefty climb back to HQ - but as we left the first checkpoint and started out to aid station 2, the real Lost Soul began to rear its head. Wide tracks gave way to single-track grassy trails over undulating terrain, which gradually became steeper on both the ups and downs. Some of the trails later became rocky, others covered in undergrowth that scratched at the legs, whilst others were soft gravel paths and steep descents, causing a strain to the legs as I tried to stop myself heading down the slopes too quickly. No sooner had we gone down a hill than a couple of hundred yards later, the pink marker flags guided us back up another steep incline - along ridges with sharp drops to the side, up hillsides where a stumble could cause a tumble down grassy slopes - weaving in and out of trees and bushes, up and down relentless hills.

My steady start meant I ended up running with a group of 5 others that were going at a similar pace, some of us struggling up the hills, some on the downs, but always encouraging and supporting eachother.

As we approached the feed station at Peen, I guessed that I was lying 3rd in the ladies race. The lead lady had shot off like a bullet at the start and went on to have the most awesome and inspiring run, finishing 2nd overall in a new course record of 11.47. I meanwhile, just concentrated on chipping away the miles and was already beginning to realise that this was going to take a while!

About 10km in and enjoying the run - with thanks
to the race photographer
By the time I'd reached Pavan at approx 30km, things were really starting to heat up. I was already sun burnt and was consuming a considerable amount of fluid. The next stretch was a 16km loop, the longest section without any support, so I needed to carry plenty of water. Not surprisingly I drank most of it extremely quickly and there was still a lot of climbing to be done which I knew would be hard work - and then the cramps started.

I've never encountered cramp in a race before. I'm usually pretty good at making sure I've had sufficient salts and electrolytes to keep me going, along with plenty of fuel in terms of food, but as the cramps set in, I realised that I had messed up my nutrition. I needed salt but I still had at least another 6km to go on this particular section before I arrived back at the aid station. By now, our little group had diminished in numbers with the lady moving ahead and some of the men dropping behind, so I found myself running pretty much alone. The course had flattened out a little with the narrow grassy trails replaced by overgrown pathways with hidden tree roots, shortly followed by sandy trail that sapped the energy levels even further. The cramps weren't helping, but if I tried to walk, it made things worse, so I just ploughed onwards as best I could.

The next aid station couldn't come soon enough and I guzzled down a cup of coke, water, chicken broth, followed by a banana and some salty potatoes. The simplest of things tasted so good and as I tipped a couple of salt sachets down my throat, I headed once again towards the aid station at Peen, this time following a different route through beautiful woodland, although the inevitable steep hills were thrown in for good measure. The cramps started to ease a little, but there was still the odd spasm on the up hills, and whilst heading downhill was extremely uncomfortable, I just gritted my teeth  and swore under my breath to help me cope with the strain on my quads. A couple of falls on some bumpy ground knocked the stuffing out of me, but thankfully I was unhurt and managed to pick myself up and kept going.

The first of the many hills heading out of Peen
 Having grabbed another banana and more fluids at Peen, the final stretch back to HQ headed along the river, taking us through yet more beautiful woodland trails as well as a mix of rocks and sand in parts. Clambering up a very short but steep hill of no more than about 3 metres had me laughing hysterically in pain as the cramps returned, shooting through my quads and hips and forcing me to stop in my tracks every time I tried to lift my legs to climb. I found myself having to find a less severe incline to go up just to the side, scrambling through bracken and clinging to trees roots to find a better grip, just so that I could scramble up more easily and without so much pain. 

I completed lap 1 (53km) in 6.11 and having grabbed some energy gels and fluids off Andy, I headed back out for more torture and pain on lap 2.

The 2nd  lap was so much more different. Mentally it helped knowing that I was already over half way. I also knew what to expect and whilst it wouldn't be easy, I believed that unless things went desperately pear shaped, I would definitely finish and would achieve my 14 hour goal.

The thing that struck me most on the second lap was how quiet things were. I was by now running completely alone with not a soul in sight - there wasn't a breath of wind, no people, no animals or cars, no birds - nothing except for complete silence. As I hit the top of a particularly steep hill - aptly called "Top of the World", I stopped briefly to absorb my surroundings and was amazed at how it made me feel - something that even now I can't describe except for feeling at peace with myself and the world around me.

Trying to staff focused and head down
Thanks to race photographer

About an hour or so into the second lap, I finally spotted some people gaining on me from behind. One of them looked like a lady although I wasn't quite sure, and having now discovred that I had spent the entire race so far in 2nd place, I suddenly felt a bit of pressure at having to keep ahead to retain my current position. I couldn't go any faster - all I could do was try to run more of the hills, but my legs had started to cramp again and I had to keep stopping to give them a good punching and a bit of a massage. Whilst giving myself a stern talking to, I was eventually caught by a chap who kindly offered me salt tablets to aid with the cramps. He also confirmed my suspicions - the next lady was indeed about 10 minutes behind - but he reassured me that I was moving much better than her and she looked in a bad way. We ran together for a while and he really helped to get me moving more quickly whilst we had a brief chat. I discovered that he too was from Calgary and that somehow gave us a sense of unity, and as he started to pull away, he turned to high five me and said "come on team Calgary - we can do this!"

It was enough to push me onwards, but as I finally approached the Pavan aid station for a third time that day, my legs had gone to jelly and I had gone extremely light-headed. In general, I was feeling ok, but the dizziness concerned me, and despite having more food, it didn't seem to be doing the trick quickly enough. It was blatantly clear that I hadn't taken on board enough fuel and I was running on empty - I needed a lie down and some food in me. I started to get upset and somewhat paranoid that I would start the next 16km unsupported stretch only to collapse half way and not finish - a sign of my tiredness and the need to consume more calories in order to bring me back to my senses. I also knew that in my current state, and with one of the toughest, hilliest sections of the day coming up, I needed to have a short rest.

I spent about 20 minutes lying down, munching away on ham and cheese sandwiches which had never tasted so good, followed by a Clif bar and yet more banana. I started to feel much better but the lady that had been following had now overtaken me and already had a 10 minute head start by the time I set off. She hadn't looked like she was going too fast, but I hadn't quite got enough energy to run, so ended up power walking pretty much the whole part of that 16km loop. Whilst I didn't catch her, I did overtake a couple of the men despite me walking, and the hills that had felt horrendous the first time around started to feel a little easier if still hurting tremendously.
The coulees of Lethbridge and the Lost Soul 100km
Heading back to Pavan, I was motoring and feeling so much better and much more positive. However, another lady was hot on my tail and I was well aware that the gap between us was closing the longer I walked. I now desperately wanted to finish top 3 and I was reluctant to give up so easily, so I soldiered on as best I could. The cramps were still there and I was extremely warm - it was also starting to go dark and with dusk setting in, the mosquitoes were out with a vengeance. I wasted far too much time rummaging for my head torch and being showered down with bug spray, and when I set off on the final 15k of the race, I probably had just 5 minutes lead over 4th place. I really didn't want her to catch me but I knew there were still some long steep hills ahead and my legs really had just about had it.

I ran as fast as I dared once I'd left the aid station, well aware that I still had 15km to the finish and as I began the climb up the crazy hill, I hadn't the strength to pull myself up. A glance behind me showed the other lady in hot pursuit, and if ever I needed a kick up the arse, that did the trick. Whilst I wouldn't exactly call it a run, I did start to move much more quickly up that hill, eager to reach the top so that I could push the pace on the downhill.

The next few km were a constant up and down which absolutely battered my quads, whilst my foot/ankle was beginning to ache but I battled on with full intentions of finishing top 3.

By now, it really had gone quite dark and I was relying on my night vision rather than a torch, pushing on as hard as I dared in the darkness, along rocky paths, across uneven grassland, along narrow river paths, and along twisty turny woodland trails that in parts were seriously overgrown. I spotted a deer on the path ahead and ran within just 5 feet of it as it refused to budge, preferring instead to look at me in puzzlement as I stumbled past. When I couldn't run, I walked as fast as possible, and each time I glanced behind me, I was still very much alone with nobody too close.

I arrived at Peen for the final time but didn't waste any time refuelling, preferring to keep as much distance as possible between me and the next lady, so checked in and out of the aid station straight away. It really was dark now and the lights at the aid station had ruined my night vision meaning I had to finally resort to using a headtorch. The pink flags marking the course were getting difficult to see despite the reflective strip on them which was meant to guide us along the course. This last stretch was flat, but there was alot of narrow single track trail through wooded areas and again I couldn't see that far ahead, just focusing on the ground no more than 2 feet in front, yet trying to look out for course markers at the same time. My pace by now was quite aggressive despite having covered in excess of 95km, but I was still convinced that I would get overtaken, and that spurred me onwards.

Having been focused on holding on to 3rd place, I never even gave a thought to catching the 2nd lady and yet with about 2km to go until the finish line, I spotted the glow of headtorches on the path ahead. I was quickly gaining on the lights and as I drew closer, I could hear women's voices. It dawned on me that I had indeed caught the 2nd lady, and as we commenced the final ascent to the finish line, she let me pass her on the hill. I felt absolutely awful passing her so close the end and don't think she even realised that I had now pushed her down the leader board, but I was moving much more quickly and when I reached the top of the hill with legs like jelly, I fought through the pain and forced my arms and legs to move as quickly as possible to try and open up a gap as I really didn't fancy a sprint finish at the end of 100km race. It was so dark, and although I could see the lights at the finish line and I had the illusion that I was running so much faster, the distance to the finish line just seemed to go on forever.

Finally, after 13 hours and 20 minutes of running, I crossed the finish line as 2nd lady in the Lost Soul 100km - so so relieved and so so pleased that I was beaming from ear to ear. At 8am that morning, I never dreamt that I would be on that podium, and yet I'd done it.I was hungry, tired, sunburnt and sore in places I didn't know existed, but as I flopped down in a chair, I just couldn't stop smiling. 

I've said it so many times over the years about different ultras being the toughest ever, but I can honestly say that never have I encountered such a toughy as the Lost Soul. In all honesty, I coped quite well with the heat, I coped with the distance, but I know where I slipped up. I would never have won the race but maybe I could have dipped under 13 hours IF I'd eaten earlier on in the race like I would do normally, and if I hadn't suffered from the cramps. It's so easy to say, "if this..." or "if that...." but there really is no point as we really can't change things afterwards. All we can do is learn from the experience for next time, and I  know that when I run Iron Horse 100 miler in 4 weeks time, I will try not to make the same mistakes.

The Lost Soul Ultra really is a truly awesome race. It may not have been on mountain trails but it was no less challenging and I loved it. Putting yourself through so much both physically, mentally and emotionally really is character building, and for me I feel stronger and yet more accepting of the simple things in life. I found it tough out there, but for the most part, I never had any doubt that I would cross that finish line, no matter how much pain I was in or how long it took me.

What more can I say except thank  you  to the organisers and the wonderful volunteers for making 2013 a memorable race for me. I will be back, and maybe I really will do some soul searching and opt for the 100 miles next time.
Memento from the Lost Soul Ultra 100km

1 comment:

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